What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath was published in Country & Border Life magazine
What Lies Beneath was published in Country & Border Life magazine

Slow Journey County: Powys

Slow Journey Destination: Llangorse Lake

Slow Journey Distance Travelled: 3 miles

A January mist swims across the surface of the water, swallowing all that rises above its depths. The still, cold air is broken by the frantic call of a startled Tufted duck escaping into the sky, and an occasional, unaccountable ‘plop’ is accompanied by a tiny ripple that floats its way towards us. Standing at the end of the jetty, we’re hovering above the water as our eyes try to penetrate the moisture molecules that the wintry sun hasn’t yet gained the strength to evaporate. Llangorse Lake it seems, wants to hold onto its secrets a little while longer.

Think of any lake or body of water and many of us name the classics in our region: Bala, Ellesmere, Vyrnwy, or Elan. Yet right across Wales and the border counties there are hundreds of pools, ponds and meres, many with a secret or two of their own to reveal, if only we took the time to visit them. This is why we’re here today, at Llangorse Lake, a few miles west of Brecon, in the Brecon Beacon National Park. Making our way back to dry land, we decide to give the sun a chance to do its work, whilst we explore the surrounding area on foot.

Llangorse Lake is the second largest natural lake in Wales. Only Bala is bigger. It has a circumference of 5 miles and covers 327 acres. The surrounding reed beds themselves cover over 25 acres making it the second largest breeding site for the Reed Warbler in Wales. It’s known as a eutrophic lake, which means that it is rich in dissolved nutrients. It certainly provides a nutritious feeding ground because fishermen can attempt to catch Roach, Perch, Pike Bream, Tench, Carp and even Eel from its glacial waters.

Striding out across the adjacent fields, the surrounding cloud-topped Brecon Beacons towering above us illustrate perfectly how Llangorse Lake was born. As the glaciers retreated, carving out the mountains before us, they also gouged out dips and hollows, ideal for collecting melting glaciers and mountain water run-off. It’s rich, nourishing waters and large surface area, makes it a popular stop over point for wintering birds.

Wading Waters
This is the ideal time of year to see Pochard and Teal, because their numbers increase in winter. Tufted Duck fly in from Iceland and northern Europe, whilst birds like the Great Crested Grebe, Coots and Canada Geese are here all year round. Pop back in spring or autumn and you may catch a rare glimpse of an Osprey stopping off to feed on its migratory journey.

As we settle into the bird hide here on the southern side of the shore, our eyes rest on the water’s edge a short distance away. There on the rocks are two large Cormorants. Traditionally seen in coastal waters and large estuaries, large open and well-stocked inland lakes like Llangorse are becoming popular wintering grounds for these birds.

The Llangorse area is home to 23 plant species that are rare in Wales, 15 of them are rare within the local Breconshire area. It comes as no surprise then when we discover that the lake was designated as a Grade 1 Site of Special Scientific Interest back in 1954.

The name, Llangorse, is a relatively modern English label. It has been known as Brycheiniog Mere (Brecon Mere), Brecenanmere, although its Welsh name is Llyn Syfaddon. Llangorse is the name of the nearby village, its name a derivation of the Welsh for church or village, ‘Llan’ and ‘cors’ which is welsh for reeds or marsh.

About an hour has passed since we set out from the other side of the lake and the sun’s strength is beginning to grow. In the distance, not far from the northern shores, Llangorse slowly begins to reveal its secret – a small, tree-covered island. To archaeologists though, it is so much more than that.

Crafty Crannog
In 1868, archaeologists realised that the island was actually a man-made structure dating back to 8th Century. It is known as a ‘crannog’, a modified or man-made structure built as a defensive homestead. Excavations on the island have revealed a bronze hinge and some high quality textiles dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries.

Crannogs actually originated in the Neolithic era. There are over 5,000 in Ireland and 600 known about in Scotland. What makes the Llangorse Crannog so special is that it is the only one in England and Wales. It’s a sensible location for a small community – yes, community – there would have been several structures on this small island. Sheltered from the east, south, and west by the Brecon Beacons, and protected like a castle moat, its waters were well-stocked with fish even then, provided a good source of food. Crannogs that were located close to the shore often had artificial walkways connecting them to the land. However, boats were also used and the museum in Brecon has a simple dug-out canoe that was discovered in the lake in 1925 and is thought to date back to 800 AD.

Channel 4’s Time Team visited the crannog here in Llangorse during its first series back in 1994 and evidence they uncovered suggested that it was built in phases. They believed that it was built by the King of Brycheiniog. Local fiefdoms were common around this time and this may have led to the downfall of this particular crannog. When a Mercian Abbot, Ecgberht, was assassinated, it was the King of Brycheiniog who was blamed by Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Records dating back to the 12th century suggest that she sent her army in to destroy the island in 916AD.

A sailing boat catches a light breeze and floats purposefully across the water. With a wintry sun on the occupant’s faces we wonder whether they are aware of the secrets and history this lake has to offer. Leaving the hide, we press on past the lakeside Llangasty Church, built by the founder of the Sunday School movement, before looping around and retracing our steps back to the car park. It’s not possible to circumnavigate the lake on foot because the south-eastern shoreline is protected as an important wildlife habitat and entry is not permissible. And whilst Llangorse is a popular lake for boating on, landing on the crannog is prohibited because the site is now a scheduled ancient monument. It seems then, that there are still some aspects of Llangorse Lake that remain secret to most of us even today.

Why not follow in our footsteps this month and explore Llangorse Lake? See Route 1 for more details. Please note that this route floods after heavy rainfall and always take care when walking close to any water’s edge. For details of other watery walks check out routes 2 and 3 in Whitchurch, Shropshire and near Trefriw, Snowdonia.

Route 1 – Llangorse Lake (near Brecon) – 6km / 3 ¾ miles – Moderate
OS Explorer Map OL13 – Brecon Beacons National Park – Eastern Area
Start – Llangorse Common Car Park (Grid Ref: SO128 272)
There’s plenty of parking here, but the walk starts from the near the toilets. With your back to these, walk directly ahead, across the common (horses roam freely here) on a good grass path towards a concrete footbridge. Cross over this and pass through a gate into a field. Please note that any of the fields on this route can have livestock in them at any time. Bear diagonally left, across the field, to a small kissing gate beside a larger metal gate. Pass through into the next field and continue in the same direction to another kissing gate at the end of a stone wall.

Go through this and continue along the path in the same direction with the lake’s reed beds on your left. Cross over a gated bridge, then turn left through another kissing gate, onto a path diagonally left across field. Pass through a gate on a short boardwalk section into the next field and cross to the next gate. Pass into another field with better views of the lake on your left. Go though another kissing gate. (To visit the hide, turn left here.) Bear right, through larger gate and follow the left hand edge, bearing left, where signed onto a long boardwalk section.

Go through a kissing gate into some trees, then through another gate into a field. Continue along the left hand field edge, taking another kissing gate into the final field. Follow path towards church. Go through kissing gate to join a track. Turn left to reach seating area by lake edge.

To continue walk, follow track past church, where it becomes a lane. Continue gently uphill to junction with another lane. Turn right and follow this with care, to the track on your right to a property and some camping. Turn down here (passing stile on right), dropping gently. Turn left just before ‘Private property’ sign, cross stile and keep to the right of the field. Take stile on right into orchard and drop down to a stile. Cross this and then drop down some steps, cross over a track and take stile into next field. Good view of lake here. Follow left hand field edge, to a junction of paths. Turn left to rejoin path used earlier. Pass through gate and follow same path back to car park.

Points of Interest
1. This route has good views of Pen y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales.
2. The hide is part of Llangasty Nature Reserve. It’s ideal for watching wildfowl and waders on Llangorse Lake.
3. Llangasty Church, and many other buildings here were built by Robert Raikes, who is also known as the founder of Sunday Schools.

Route 2 – Brown Moss (near Whitchurch) – 1.6km / 1 mile – Easy
OS Explorer 241 Shrewsbury
Start – Brown Moss Main Car Park (Grid Ref SJ 593395)
From the main car park, with your back to the lane, cross over the old ditch and follow the main path as it gently bears round to the right through wooded areas, then around to the left. Continue along this main path to reach a track beside a black and white property.

Turn left, passing a small pool on your left, and follow the main path, which is also part of the Marches Way. Where the path forks, bear left to remain on the wider track and continue along this section, skirting the edge of the trees, until you reach a boardwalk section. Follow this as it negotiates its way between pools, and then turn left, around a pool, through the trees, to emerge into a clearing near the main pool at Brown Moss.

Turn right here and follow another boardwalk section, through the trees, and to the right of the main pool. At another boardwalk section, turn right and cross over the lane carefully, to pick up a signed footpath to the left of a property. Follow this into the woods. Where the path forks, bear left to remain on the main path and follow this around to the left, passing another pool on your left. At the lane, cross over and follow the path as it bears right around the main pool. The route uses another boardwalk section, round to the left to return you to the car park.

Points of Interest
1. Brown Moss was once as big as the Mere at Ellesmere.
2. It is home to over 200 species of wild plant, including the rare Floating Water Plantain.
3. Brown Moss is designated as a SSSI, a RAMSAR site, a Special Area of Conservation and is also a Local Nature reserve.

Route 3 – Llyn Geirionydd – near Trefriw 3.25 km / 2 miles – Easy
OS Explorer OL17 – Snowdonia
Start: Car Park, pay and display (Grid Ref: SH 762 604)
From the car park and toilets, head towards the lake to pick up the narrow lane. Turn right and follow this past the landing stages. This lake is popular with boaters, particularly at weekends, so take care along this section with cars towing trailers. Follow this lakeshore lane for about a mile along the length, and then turn left at the end of the lake onto another lane.

Cross over a bridge over a small stream and continue up the lane passing a house on your left. To the right (worth exploring) is a monument to the 6th Century Welsh poet Taliesin, perched on a small hill. For the walk, take the signed track on your left, after the house, and follow this gently around to the right and then the left, as it rejoins the shore edge.

Continue along this path as it heads into the trees and then bear round to the left, around a bay, emerging into the open briefly, before returning under the tree canopy. This path remains quite close to the shore for the rest of its length, and as it nears the other end, it emerges into a clearing. The route is still obvious as it cuts across the open grassland and then bears left, to pass in front of a property. At a junction with a lane, turn left. Follow this straight along the southern end of the lake, crossing a bridge to reach a junction with another lane. Turn left and follow this lane back to the car park.

Points of Interest
1. Taliesin’s work is the earliest surviving poetry in the Welsh language, and lived close to these shores.
2. The River Geirionydd, which leaves the lake at its northern end, plummets down towards the River Crafnant and is popular with gorge walkers.
3. A survey a couple of years ago discovered that despite the lake’s popularity with boaters, it is a popular haunt for otters and water voles.

Secret Shorelines
Other lakes and meres worth exploring include:
1 – Llynnau Cregennan, near Arthog, Dolgellau. Two lakes hiding behind Cadair Idris and overlooking the Mawddach Estuary. National Trust.
2 – Cemlyn Bay Lagoon, Anglesey. Separated from the sea by a pebble beach, a circular route uses the beach and quiet lanes to circumnavigate the lagoon. May be impassable an hour either side of high tide though.
3 – The Lake, Llandrindod Wells. Just off the town centre, it’s a lovely, pushchair friendly route that will take no more than half an hour.

© Simon Whaley

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